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Turn your pie into a spectacle this holiday season


    The most beautiful pies exalt the ingredients that fill them. “You take something like an apple and say, ‘I want to show it off in the best way possible,’” said Erin Jeanne McDowell, who wrote the 2017 cookbook “The Fearless Baker.”

The most beautiful pies exalt the ingredients that fill them. “You take something like an apple and say, ‘I want to show it off in the best way possible,’” said Erin Jeanne McDowell, who wrote the 2017 cookbook “The Fearless Baker” and who developed the pies described here.

The fillings are striking on their own, but the decorating techniques make them shine for a holiday feast.

THIS PIE crust recipe makes a single crust for a 9-inch pie; double it for a double-crust pie.

The dough keeps in the refrigerator for up to 2 days and in the freezer for up to 3 months (thaw it overnight in the refrigerator before rolling).

This recipe is ideal for the pies on these pages, but even if you use another recipe, or a frozen or refrigerated crust, the instructions for par-baking and pre-baking ­— for the custard and lemon pies — should be followed.


By Erin Jeanne McDowell

  • 1-1/4 cup (160 grams) all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1/2 cup (115 grams) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 3 to 4 tablespoons ice water, plus more as needed

In a large bowl, whisk together flour and salt. Add butter, tossing cubes until pieces are separated, each one coated in flour.

Cut butter into the flour by pressing pieces between your palms or fingertips, flattening cubes into shards and continuing to toss them in the flour to recoat. For fruit pies, stop when the butter pieces are about an inch long. For custard pies, stop when the butter pieces are smaller, about the size of peas.

Make a well in the center of the mixture. Add 3 tablespoons ice water and mix it lightly with the flour in the bowl. Continue to add ice water 1 to 2 tablespoons at a time until the dough begins to come together. Fold it over itself a few times to make sure it’s homogeneous. The dough should hold together without noticeable cracks, but should not be wet or tacky. Form into a disk about 1-inch thick. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 1 hour.

To shape dough, lightly flour a rolling pin and a work surface. Roll dough into a circle 1/4-inch thick. It should be wider than your pie plate by at least 1 inch on all sides.

Roll dough onto the rolling pin and gently transfer to the pie plate by unfurling it from the pin. Lift the dough up at the edges and push it gently down to make sure it makes contact with the sides and base of the pie plate. Trim away any excess dough, leaving 1/2 inch all the way around.

>> For a single-crust pie: Tuck the excess dough under all the way around the edge of the pie plate and crimp as desired. Cover with plastic wrap and chill at least 30 minutes and up to 12 hours before filling, finishing and baking.

>> For a double-crust pie: Leave excess dough as is until pie is filled and ready to be topped. Crimp crusts together to seal. Cover and chill as for a single-crust pie.

>> For a par-baked crust: Heat oven to 425 degrees, with a baking stone, if you have one, on the lowest rack of the oven. Mix 1 large egg with 1 tablespoon water to make egg wash and brush on the edges of the crust. Line crust with parchment and fill with pie weights, then place on a parchment- or foil-lined baking sheet.

Transfer to the lowest rack of the oven, directly on the baking stone, if using. Bake until edge of crust is just starting to turn golden brown, 12 to 15 minutes.

Remove parchment and weights; continue to bake until the base appears set, 2 to 4 minutes more.

>> For a pre-baked crust: Follow instructions for par-baking, but leave crust in the oven longer to fully bake: 17 to 20 minutes with pie weights, then 12 to 15 more without them, until crust is brown. Cool completely before filling and chilling.

FOR THIS recipe, arrange thin slices of red, pink, yellow and green apples to create a naturally colored ombre effect — the gradual blending of one color into another, from light to dark.


By Erin Jeanne McDowell

  • 1 unbaked 9-inch pie crust

>> Filling:

  • 2 medium red apples, such as McIntosh or Cortland
  • 2 medium pink apples, such as Jonagold, Gala or Fuji
  • 2 medium yellow-pink apples, such as Golden Delicious
  • 2 medium green apples, such as Granny Smith
  • Lemon juice, as needed
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, cut into 6 pieces
  • 1/4 cup (50 grams) granulated sugar
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • Pinch fine sea salt

Core and quarter each apple, then cut each quarter into slices about 1/8-inch thick. Arrange slices by color on a baking sheet. Squeeze lemon juice over slices to prevent browning.

Arrange apples in a prepared crust in an ombre effect, working from dark red to pink to yellow-pink to green. To do this, grab a few apples in one color at a time, and fan them out in your hand. Place them skin side up in the crust, arranging them relatively tightly to ensure maximum coverage. Cut or trim pieces smaller to fill in at the edges as needed. Repeat until crust is full of apples. Dot the surface with butter and chill pie for 30 minutes.

Heat oven to 375 degrees.

In a small bowl, whisk together sugar, cinnamon and salt. Liberally sprinkle this mixture over top of apples, in between them and around edges, then bake 25 to 30 minutes. Start checking after 20 minutes: You don’t want the apples to brown too much, which weakens the ombre effect, but you do need to bake until the crust is golden brown.

THIS TART lemon pie, with its brilliant-yellow color, can be served as is, or add rows of dough triangles for more crunch and a punchy design.


By Erin Jeanne McDowell

  • 1 pre-baked 9-inch pie crust, plus an additional unbaked crust for decoration

>> Filling:

  • 1-3/4 cups lemon juice (from 8 to 10 lemons)
  • Zest of 2 lemons
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1-3/4 cups (360 grams) granulated sugar
  • 1/3 cup (45 grams) cornstarch
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 2 large eggs
  • 6 large egg yolks
  • 6 tablespoons (85 grams) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

In a medium pot, whisk lemon juice, zest and water.

In a medium bowl, whisk sugar, cornstarch and salt to combine. Whisk this mixture into the pot; place over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until mixture comes to a simmer. Reduce heat to medium and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 2 minutes.

In a heatproof bowl, lightly whisk eggs and yolks. Gradually add about 1/4 of the hot lemon mixture to eggs in a slow, steady stream while whisking constantly.

Whisk egg mixture into pot, and switch to a heatproof spatula. Reduce heat to medium-low and continue to cook, stirring constantly, until mixture thickens, 5 to 7 minutes. It should come to a boil — fat bubbles will rise from the center of the pot.

(You should also see a distinct line that quickly closes in on itself if you drag your spatula through the curd.) Remove from heat and stir in butter, a few cubes at a time, until combined.

Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into baked and cooled pie crust, and spread into an even layer. Place plastic wrap directly over the surface while still hot and chill until filling is set, at least 3 to 4 hours and up to overnight.

>> To decorate: Cut triangles in rolled-out pie crust dough; chill 30 minutes, then brush with egg wash and bake 12-15 minutes in a 425-degree oven. Cool. Use a small spatula to smooth the top of the chilled pie filling, rotating the pie to make a spiral design. Top with baked dough triangles.

THIS CUSTARD pie combines tangy citrus custard and a layer of whipped cream with exuberant strips of citrus zest.

The zest can be poached in simple syrup (1-part sugar dissolved in 1-part water) or left raw for a brighter look.


By Erin Jeanne McDowell

  • 1 par-baked 9-inch pie crust

>> Filling:

  • 1 cup (200 grams) granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons (80 grams) all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 teaspoon lemon extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon orange extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 tablespoon lemon, orange or lime zest

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Whisk sugar, flour, ginger and salt in a medium bowl to combine.

Add milk, cream, extracts and zest; whisk well to combine. Pour custard into a par-baked crust.

Bake 40 to 45 minutes, until custard appears set around outer edge; center of the pie may still be jiggly, but will firm up as it cools.

>> To decorate: Top cooled pie with whipped cream and scatter with thin strips of lemon, lime and orange zest.

Nutritional information unavailable.

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